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A neurosurgeon’s audacious experiments raised ire from animal rights activists and interest from the Vatican

Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey's Head, the Pope's Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul

Brandy Shillace
Simon and Schuster
2021
320 pp.
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Historian Brandy Schillace’s new book, Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher—so titled to evoke Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde—offers a probing and provocative portrait of the American neurosurgeon and neurophysiologist Robert J. White (1926–2010), whose life’s ambition was to establish that the brain—the seat of consciousness, personhood, or, as a pious Catholic like White conceived of it, the human soul—could be separated from its bodily shell and even transferred to another body. Schillace, editor of BMJ’s journal Medical Humanities, articulates the origins and outcome of White’s obsession, his complex relationship with the media, and his service to several popes.

Between 1961 and his retirement from Case Western Reserve University in 1998, White oversaw the Brain Research Laboratory, where he and his colleagues pioneered techniques for isolating and maintaining the primate brain, cooling the brain for surgery, and surgically transplanting the head of the macaque monkey onto the body of another monkey. His publications in leading journals, including in Science in 1963 (1), earned him an international reputation and prompted fascinating collaborations and relationships.

White received visits and invitations to collaborate from Soviet researchers, including Vladimir Demikhov, whose recent work had included the surgical creation of two-headed dogs. Despite Cold War political tensions, White maintained close ties with Russian neurosurgeons and considered it a great honor to have been allowed to view Lenin’s brain, preserved at the Moscow Brain Research Institute.

White liked to describe himself as a humble man. But “Humble Bob” was no shrinking violet. In 1964, he gave his first interview to the New York Times, and throughout his career, he used the press to advance his ideas. In 1967, he agreed to be interviewed by Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci about his latest project, the “hot” isolation of the brain of a rhesus monkey—so called because it skipped the cooling step once considered essential to the procedure.

“The Dead Body and the Living Brain,” which appeared in Look magazine on 28 November 1967, centered on the harrowing experience of one of White’s subjects, a monkey that Fallaci named Libby, and cast White as a Frankenstein figure. White was not prepared for the firestorm that Fallaci’s interview created, nor for the new nickname it would earn him—Dr. Butcher.

Schillace does a masterful job in charting the massive shift in attitudes toward animal experimentation and the emergence of animal rights in the 1960s and 1970s. But she reminds readers that White considered his experiments on monkeys to be mere rehearsals for his ultimate goal, to perform the surgery on a human being and thereby reduce human suffering.

White embraced comparisons with Mary Shelley’s ambitious physician Victor Frankenstein, carrying a black doctor’s bag emblazoned with the words “Dr. Frankenstein.” He regarded the novel not as a cautionary tale but as a story of possibility and promise in which life might be preserved in gravely injured and catastrophically diseased human beings.

A lifelong Catholic who accepted the Church’s teachings that limited ensoulment to human beings, White’s professional interests intersected with the emerging debate over brain death in the late 1960s. He reasoned that the soul, being situated in the brain, was liberated in cases of brain death and thus that brain-dead individuals should be considered dead. In 1970, he was invited to Rome to advise the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and to a private audience with Pope Paul VI. He established the Vatican’s biomedical ethics commission in 1981, and the Church’s stance on brain death soon shifted to be more in keeping with White’s beliefs.

As White readied for retirement in the mid-1990s, he feared that he would miss his chance to complete the operation he had spent his entire career preparing for. Although he had long fantasized about performing a body transplant on Stephen Hawking, White found his “perfect patient” in Craig Vetovitz, a Cleveland man wheelchair-bound following an accident in 1971. The surgeon and his patient gave many interviews, but by this time, White no longer had hospital privileges, nor did he have access to the funding and institutional support necessary for the extraordinary surgery or Vetovitz’s rehabilitation. The much-hyped procedure would never become a reality.

White, who died in 2010 at the age of 84, did not live long enough to see the resurgence in interest in head transplantation that emerged in the past decade in the form of Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero, who promised to perform a human head transplant by 2020. As of this writing, he has not succeeded, but it may yet come true. For now, “the quest to transplant the soul continues on,” writes Schillace.

References and Notes
1. R. J. White, M. S. Albin, J. Verdura, Science 141,
1060 (1963).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Medical History and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, WI 53706, USA.